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The World’s First Cocktail

by Warrick Steabben on July 2, 2014

The story of alcohol is as old as civilisation, and somewhere along the way, people started mixing their drinks. The Romans mixed water and fruit with their wine to make something like sangria, the British Empire gave its sailors a mixture of rum and lime juice to ward off scurvy, and European colonists in Africa and India drank gin with their quinine to improve the taste of their malaria treatments.

We’ve talked about creating your own signature cocktail before. That’s a useful skill to have, but knowing the classics is how you get good at improvising, so let’s take a look at where cocktails began.

What is a Cocktail, Anyway?

In its day-to-day usage, the word “cocktail” refers to pretty much any mixed drink containing one or more of the following spirits: hard liquor, liqueur, brandy or fortified wine. Normally, they also contain non-alcoholic ingredients like juice or seltzer water. However, the formal definition is a little narrower: a mixture of spirits, sugar, water, and bitters.

Old-Fashioned Tastes

All evidence suggests that the aptly-named Old Fashioned was the first true cocktail to grace the Earth. This is so believed because the first attempt to define the word “cocktail” was a response to a letter in an issue of The Balance and Columbia Repository published in May, 1806 that called a cocktail a “concoction of spirits, bitters, water and sugar,” also called a “bittered sling”. Much later, in 1882, an article in the Chicago Tribune quoted a local barkeep who claimed that “old-fashioned” cocktails were becoming popular again. He described the Old Fashioned as we know it today: a cocktail using Bourbon or Rye whiskey.

Rum Manhattan Tequila Old Fashioned
Rum Manhattan Tequila Old Fashioned

An Old-Fashioned, according to the International Bartenders Association, contains the following:

  • 4.5cl Whiskey
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 1 cube of sugar
  • A few dashes water

Mixing one is appropriately simple. All you have to do is muddle the sugar cube with the water and bitters until it’s dissolved, fill it with ice—cubes, not crushed—and pour in the whiskey. Garnish with an orange slice and cocktail cherry.

A Bitters Lesson

While the Old Fashioned is specifically a whiskey cocktail with Angostura bitters, there are countless kinds of bitters that you can try in different variations on this basic cocktail recipe. For instance, Orange bitters, which fell out of favour decades ago, have again exploded in popularity recently. Their resurgence has brought back several early twentieth century cocktails like the Trilby and the Bronx. You don’t have to limit yourself to whiskey, either. Gin, rum, and vodka are also extremely popular cocktail liquors. Experiment enough with different combinations of bitters and liquors, and you’re sure to find something great.

If you really want to learn how to mix a good Old Fashioned, as well as any other classic cocktail, consider enrolling in one of our bartending courses. Students undergo rigorous, hands-on training with some seriously experienced bartenders. Mixing the perfect cocktail is just one of the skills you’ll learn.